We spat on our glasses and wiped them clean. We tried going without, squinting into the glare, blinding ourselves still further. "Tell me what o'clock they're at," Fred finally said, and by that device—"T'irty feet, mon, 'leven o'clock"—Fred had his first strike. "Yas," Kent said when the fly splashed, leading the permit perfectly. "Heem coming, heem coming." Fred was retrieving the crab in six-inch strips. Suddenly the water 20 feet from the boat exploded from below. Fred, feeling weight, struck the fish hard. Then nothing. When he pulled in his line, the fly was gone.The OX tippet that he had hurriedly tied had slipped at the barrel knot. Kent said nothing. He poled on ahead, silently scouring the sea.
"See any permit?" Bennett asked genially that night when we came in for dinner.
The answer, of course, was no, but I dodged the issue by saying we had cast to a number of them. There was a fish mounted on the wall behind him. "That a permit?" I asked.
Fred glanced at it. "That's a Jack [Crevalle]," he said.
"No, it ain't," Bennett drawled. "Twenty-seven-pound permit. Biggest one caught here at the lodge."
"They look different in the water," I noted. They did, too. They looked invisible.
The mounted permit reminded me of a Latin baseball catcher in his squat behind home plate: round yet streamlined. The fish was nearly as high as it was long, silver on the sides, dark gray on the back, with a small black dorsal fin that angled smoothly rearward. Its tail was blue-black, long and forked. A tailing permit, I had been told; is one of the most unmistakable sights in nature. As the permit roots in the shallows for crabs, this great forked appendage seesaws above the flats like a pair of pruning shears. The permit's mouth is small and ideal for crushing crabs, having, according to [A.J.] McClane's New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, "the texture of an automobile tire." This makes the fish difficult to hook. Once one is hooked your troubles are just beginning. A permit has the annoying habit of banging its head in the coral to sever your line, or rubbing its mouth in the sand to loosen your barb, or turning its body sideways to increase water resistance, so that it feels as though you are reeling in a soup tureen. No matter which strategy it chooses, the angler is in for an exhausting battle. Fighting a permit for three hours is not considered unusual.
"Least y'all had a strike," Bennett said after we had described the one that got away. "Last week there was a full moon, which affects fish in funny ways. It got so bad that the guides were throwing live hermit crabs to the permit with the hooks hidden on their insides. The permit still wouldn't bite. That's the kind offish they are. Good bonefishing, though. Most of our anglers are here for the bonefish and consider the permit a bonus fish."
"Not us, my friend," Fred said grimly.
I asked Bennett how many permit had been taken that summer.